Working Towards a 'Transparent-Box' of Aging

This blog post explores a few topics:

  1. My AC4D group’s design research into aging populations and computing technology
  2. “Old People Everywhere”
  3. Family’s ability to teach seniors technology
  4. Black-box aging

My AC4D research group is studying aging populations, technology and “Aging in Place.” All four of us are in our late 20s or early 30s and have Baby Boomer parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation (born before 1944). Right now we’re completing design research with people from the Greatest Generation who use technology and we’re also researching with those who surround this population- their Baby Boomer children or grandchildren, and people in the rest of the ecosystem around aging (pharmacists, social directors at senior independent living complexes, etc.) who can give us more of a sense of the needs of aging populations.

Throughout this research I’ve been mulling over a section in A Pattern Language called “Old People Everywhere” that is aligned with the “Aging in Place” our group has been studying. This stood out to me most:

The fact is that contemporary society shunts away old people; and the more shunted away they are, the deeper the rift between old and young.

…The segregation of the old causes the same rift inside each individual life: as old people pass into old age communities their ties with their own past become unacknowledged, lost, and therefore broken. Their youth is no longer alive in their old age- the two become dissociated; their lives are cut in two.

It goes without saying that this cleaving away of one’s youth when one moves into a nursing home or retirement village makes one “older.” This is part of the argument for “Aging in Place”- when in your own home, surrounded by your life and identity, one is able to stay younger because of those ties to the past.


Family Makes the Black-Box Transparent

We’re noticing in our research that often it’s the Baby Boomers and grandchildren of “Greatests” who usually give them tech devices (iPhones and iPads mostly) and personally show them how to use the devices. So far, usually this is driven by a desire to stay in better touch with the grandparent. Most often it is the grandchildren teaching the grandparent how to use the computing device and getting called for help/advice when something isn’t working.

The grandchildren effectively act as the agent that turns the black-box design of tech devices into transparent-box design that the grandparent can use. All the talk about intuitive to use tech products amounts to nothing when there isn’t a kind and trusted younger family member there to show the grandparent how to use the device. The grandchildren are cracking open the black-box and showing the grandparents the inner workings, teaching them this new language of use.

These grandchildren, mostly millennials, have taught themselves how to use technology through intuitively playing with it; their mental models allow for it to all make sense. Often this is not the case for their grandparents and parents, and instead they rely on these younger generations to walk them through. (A system designed to support this tech-teaching relationship between grandchild and grandparent would be of great use. Additionally, a system designed to encourage and support a teaching relationship for the grandparent to teach their mental model to the grandchild would broaden the horizons and creative thinking abilities of the grandchildren).


Black-Box Aging

Aging in nursing homes versus aging in place, as integrated members in one’s community, is black-box aging. Our contemporary society has increasingly done this- with specially developed retirement communities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities.  When elders are shunted away from the rest of society, hidden from view and secluded in homogenous nursing homes or retirement communities, (or even just isolated in their own homes and less mobile), their wisdom and the role-modelling they provide is partitioned off. The respect for elders in those who are young, is unable to develop. This has the effect of a whole society that doesn’t respect elderly people and society/cities as a whole that don’t adapt to suit the needs of aging people.

Through our research and ultimately through the services/systems we design, our group aims to change this.